In reversal, Leverett voters OK cell towers

LEVERETT — Voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a proposal for amending town bylaws restricting cellphone tower construction, a move that clears the way for more wireless Internet and cellular access for the underserved rural town.

By a vote of 153-10, residents approved changes in Leverett’s 10-year-old telecommunications zoning bylaw, specifying an application process for third parties wishing to construct cell towers within the town and adding a “setback” provision requiring the towers to be placed a certain distance away from public ways and residential buildings.

In a notable electoral shift, the measure’s supporters far exceeded the two-thirds majority required to pass it, a benchmark that a similar measure presented to Leverett’s annual town meeting in April failed to reach.

According to Selectboard member Peter d’Errico, the new language represented “relatively minor changes” to the existing code, but he declared his strong support for the measure.

“We need this to pass in order to move forward on any plan to imp rove cellphone access in town,” he said.

The referendum articles were taken from a formal proposal issued to the Selectboard by the Cell Phone Tower Study Committee, an ad hoc commission appointed by the board in the aftermath of the rejected measure in April. A summary report was released to the public Sept. 12, detailing the study group’s recommendations and including the proposal for a referendum.

The nine-person committee was to address concerns raised by residents at the annual meeting about the ramifications of cell tower construction for quality of life in Leverett. Negative health effects stemming from increases in radiation and high-frequency waves in the immediate area had been a major issue of contention at the debate in April.

“It is evident that a significant number of people are concerned with the potential health impacts of cell towers,” the report stated, citing the negative effect on property values and the impact that the structures might have on the natural landscape of the town as other issues they considered.

By the terms of the new amendments, any c ell tower in Leverett must be sited at least 2,000 feet away from a roadway and 1,650 feet from any public or private building or dwelling. The maximum height for any tower will be capped at 199 feet to avoid installin g airline safety lighting, as per national regulations. The proposal “was based on more than 60 international studies showing credible evidence supporting setbacks” as a means of reducing radiation and wave frequency levels, according to Nancy Grossman, the chairwoman of the ad-hoc committee, who spoke on Tuesday.

Intermittent or nonexistent cellphone reception has been an ongoing problem in Leverett, according to several speakers.

“When we first passed a telecommunications bylaw 10 years ago, it was so restrictive that we managed to keep cellphone towers out of town pretty effectively,” said Jeff McQueen, a member of the Planning Board. “In the era of smartphones and wireless access, it’s only become more important that we address this problem.”

Discussion at Tuesday’s meeting was heavily weighted in favor of the bylaw changes, and several elected officials and town employees as well as residents spoke to the gathering in support. Leverett Police Chief Gary Billings cited the lack of cellular and wireless reception as a matter of public safety, outlining the hazards of operating a police response without coordination or losing access to a mobile state database while on patrol.

“In a disaster, communication is essential,” he said.

With the new zoning language now officially in place, town officials will next consider whether to solicit bids for third parties to oversee tower construction or to pursue an alternative, such as a municipally owned tower that could be leased out to various providers to cover the building costs.

“We’ll be able to hire an independent consultant to tell us what the best sites are for us, to give us the best reception with the least impact,” said Select board member Richard Brazeau. “We’ll be in full control of the process to make sure that the town is getting the best deal that it can.”

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